When your middle-schooler announces she has a “boyfriend,” here’s what it really means—and why you should take a deep breath before grounding her until she’s 21.

By Lisa Lombardi
Updated February 13, 2018
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Hearing your 11-year old announce that she has a boyfriend (or he has a girlfriend, or, frankly, any other combination) ranks right up there as a major parental WTF moment. How did this happen? Wasn’t she just playing with Barbies? Where does a kid who’s at least five years away from driving go on a date, anyway?

It’s normal to feel a bit blindsided by this parenting rite of passage, but keep in mind that the first boyfriend or girlfriend is usually a mutual crush, not a hot-and-heavy romance, says Julie Hanks, PhD, a family therapist in Salt Lake City, UT. As my friend Kara, who has 12- and 9-year-old daughters, says, “These relationships are beyond fleeting, and they seem to result in no actual interaction.”

Here, some strategies that will help you stay supportive when you’re freaking out inside:

Rebecca Nelson/Getty Images

1

Remember how embarrassing it was when your brother sang that you and your crush were sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G? Or how mortifying it was to have your mom or dad ask “How is DAVE?” while your siblings burst into a fit of giggles? Rib-poking, no matter how gentle, can be a subtle form of bullying, says Hanks. “This may be the first time your child has experienced loving feelings that are different than feelings for family members, so be respectful.”

2

First romances—even very brief ones—can be a formative experience, says Hanks, who points out that this early toe-in-the-water is setting the stage for your child’s future love life. “Do what you can to make it a sweet and positive experience,” she says. That might mean offering to take the two kids to a fro-yo shop while you sit at another table, being low-key if they have a play date at your home, or even just mentioning that you think the object of her affection is a nice kid.

3

Other than a hug or a simple peck, 10- to 12-year olds are not emotionally or physically ready for sexual experimentation, Hanks says. To minimize the chances that they’ll get handsy, make sure their get-togethers are supervised.

4

The encouraging news is that kids today are becoming sexually active at a later age than kids of earlier generations, according to a recent study in the journal Child Development, and the teen birth rate is lower than ever. But that doesn’t mean your particular child isn’t feeling tempted. Be sure to check in with him or her frequently, and keep an open line of communication about your family values, what is appropriate, and how to stay safe.

5

Depending on your child’s age and how long the mini-romance lasted, he or she may be either seriously broken up when it’s over, or completely blasé about it. If you notice the former reaction, your job is “empathy, empathy, empathy,” says Hanks. Sure, your adult perspective tells you that almost nobody marries their sixth-grade sweetheart. But saying things like “you’re only 11” or “you’ll forget all about her” negates some very real pangs. If, on the other hand, your kid seems perfectly fine that it’s over, don’t press for details (“Did you and Charlie get in a fight?”).